Breaking Down Pipe Masters

In December, the surf world once again descends on Oahu’s North Shore for the sport’s most prestigious event, the Pipe Masters, where competitors battle it out at the planet’s most famous—and deadliest—break. Here’s a look behind surfing’s biggest spectacle.

Kai Barger in the pipe.     Photo: Jeff Flindt

Pipeline is widely considered the deadliest wave in the world, having killed at least five surfers in the past decade.

UPDATE: Joel Parkinson won Pipe Masters and his first ASP World Title on Friday, December 14.

THE PEDIGREE: Professional surfing came of age in the 1970s, and no other event measured up to the Pipe Masters. “The other pro tour events all seemed optional by comparison,” says surf historian Matt Warshaw. “Dudes got hurt. You couldn’t look away. It was, and still is, the surf contest all other surf contests want to be.”

THE SWELL: Pipeline breaks best on a west swell, which is most prominent October to March. Local knowledge is key: while some Pipeline waves hit the reef at just the right angle, creating flawless semi-truck-size barrels, others slam headlong into the shallow, razor-sharp reef.

THE TOLL: Pipeline is widely considered the deadliest wave in the world, having killed at least five surfers in the past decade, including Tahitian big-wave pro Malik Joyeux in 2005.

THE BEACH: During the Masters, some 5,000 people roam the short stretch of sand fronting Pipeline, only 50 yards offshore.

THE MEDIA: It’s not uncommon to see two or three dozen photographers bobbing in the channel and dozens more onshore, with jet skis swirling in the water. This year the event will be broadcast live at Vanstriplecrownofsurfing.com.

LOCALISM: At the Pipe Masters, 10 wild-card entries are reserved for Hawaiians—a rule enacted in 2004 after locals complained about the event taking over their wave. At other times of the year, a hard-partying crew of surfers known as Da Hui “protect” the lineup. (Plug “Da Hui surf fights” into YouTube for examples.)

THE PARTIES: Pros typically stay in one of a dozen beach houses owned or rented by surf companies, and the festivities can get out of hand. Last year, tension from the lineup carried over into the Billabong house, where company executives reportedly became involved in a conflict with Eddie Rothman, leader of Da Hui, and his son Makua.

THE SHOWDOWN: Pipeline is Pipeline because of the epic rivalries. It’s the final event of the year for the ASP world title and the Vans Triple Crown, which means both titles can come down to a single ride. And nothing stokes the huge crowd like a showdown between a local favorite and an outsider. The greatest rivalry was the one between Kelly Slater and the late Hawaiian icon Andy Irons from 2003 to 2006. Slater has won the event six times, but during those years Irons won three Pipe Masters. Slater is once again a favorite, and if he and 20-year-old Hawaiian John John Florence, who started surfing Pipeline at age eight and won last year’s Vans Triple Crown, make it to the final, it’s a fair bet the locals will be having flashbacks from the Irons-Slater heyday.

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